Though British costume drama has never really been my bag — too staid, too dull, too much velvet — I’ll just go ahead and tell you that I was absolutely captivated by “Atonement.” Beautiful, powerfully acted, epic yet somehow intimate, it’s easily one of the top five movies I’ve seen this year.
With a screenplay based on the novel by Ian McEwan, newcomer Saoirse Ronan stars as Briony Tallis, a 13-year-old would-be playwright who is whiling away the summer of 1935 at her parents’ palatial estate in the English countryside. Still not quite sure what to make of love, Briony finds herself fascinated with — and maybe a little jealous of — a growing flirtation between her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie (James McAvoy), a lowly servant’s son. In a series of misunderstandings and miscalculations, Briony winds up reading a sexually charged love letter between Robbie and Cecilia shortly before catching them in a very compromising situation. Confused about sex and convinced that Robbie is some kind of fiend who has assaulted her sister, Briony winds up making a horrendous accusation against him — one that sees Robbie hauled off to prison in chains.
From there, the story jumps five years to the early days of the Second World War. Released from prison on the understanding that he’ll fight for Queen and Country, Robbie is now a bitter, battle-hardened soldier when he catches a glimpse of Cecilia, now a nurse, while on leave in London. From Cecilia, Robbie learns that Briony — once she got old enough to realize the truth of the relationship between Robbie and her sister — was crushed by the accusation she made against him. She wants to come apologize. That’s neither here nor there for Robbie and Cecilia, however, who pledge to restart their lives together once the war is over. This sets up the viewer for an ending that will likely win “Atonement” a spot in the pantheon of American film. Not anything so vulgar as a “surprise ending,” it’s a moment that swerves out of the darkness like a great truck and leaves the viewer as emotionally broken as the characters on screen.
Though I’ve been gaining respect for the acting talents of Keira Knightley in recent years (let’s just forget about “Domino,” shall we?) it is James McAvoy who is absolutely dazzling in “Atonement.” His transformation from a happy-go-lucky schoolboy to a spiritually damaged soldier is one of the best things you’ll see on film this year. He is literally like two different actors. Also good is Saoirse Ronan, a pale wisp of a girl who does the hard work of selling the idea that it’s love and compassion — not jealousy and a spoiled sense of entitlement — that causes young Briony to do the terrible thing that she does.
In short, “Atonement” is just a lovely film, one that packs both sunlit peaks and ink-black valleys into a very succinct package. Though it’s a fairly simple story — it reminded me a lot, in fact, of “The Great Gatsby” in that way — it’s full of life. Don’t be surprised if this one takes home several Oscars this year.